Well, I’m pleased about Carol Ann Duffy. The poet laureates in my life-time have been safe pairs of hands and slightly grand until now. I liked Duffy’s first Anvil collection when it came out, and I still have a special fondness for her third, The Other Country, which has a good claim to be the best collection written in the twentieth century, since it was witty, various, accessible, cunning and memorable – it could be read as a sequence, or read as a collection, and it was impeccable. And, although Adrian Mitchell would have disapproved, it was the first of hers to be placed on a syllabus, I think. My colleagues at work looked at it a little askance, but there are few collections it was more of a pleasure to teach – or to discover with a group of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Almost every poem in it hit a nerve with them as well as with me, to an unprecedented extent – it was good on identity, on solitude, on love, on sex, on money, on understanding how present, past and future intersect. Its successor, Mean Time, which was partly a continuation of these same ideas, was the one which gained her the first big awards, but I always thought that its success was due to its predecessor’s intuitive feeling for the way words move, and for its acts of impersonation. Duffy has a way of inhabiting the imagination which opens it up. She makes you think about who you are, while she is thinking about who she is. That is a terrific skill. I don’t think the fondness that examiners have for her is any kind of insult. It simply proves her universal appeal.
Duffy can take the simplest phrase and make it resonate. In Mean Time, there is a poem about an elderly man who looks in a mirror and is ‘beside myself’. A simple phrase’s ambiguity, there for the taking by any poet alert to the nuances of language, is seized and made memorable. And I also love the way she is happy to be comic and bitter. Many poets are happy to be bitter, but Duffy sees the ridiculous as well as the terrible.
It is a sad irony that the announcement of Duffy as poet laureate coincided with the news of UA Fanthorpe’s death. She was quite the most generous of writers, and not just, I think, because she was first published at the age of 49. The first poetry prize I won was the result of her adjudication, and when, at an even later age (and also as an ex-Head of English), my first collection came out, I had what I thought was the temerity to write to her and to her partner Rosie Bailey to see if they would endorse it. (Nasty word, endorse, but let it go.) Rosie answered on their behalf – Rosie was always the one who responded to these enquiries and others. And what they said was not just generous but also not just knocked off, a really sincere and thoughtful reading of what I had sent. In case I didn’t believe it, they put ‘We really mean it!’ at the end of the letter. Perhaps hundreds of poets, young as well as older, owe her and Rosie this debt of gratitude. She had infinite time for others, and was chatty, kind, funny and self-deprecating on the occasions I met her. Having been, as it were, discovered, she made it part of her role to discover. Her generosity will be treasured, very much as it will be missed.